Jeff Lemire has rapidly become one of the top writers in comics, both with his work for the Big Two and with his creator-owned series. His latest, and biggest, hit is Descender, which follows a robot boy as he’s made illegal and struggles to survive in a galaxy full of bounty hunters, angry humans, and political machinations. Lemire was kind enough to sit down with us on the eve of Descender‘s first collection arriving in stores, and talk about the book and how it came together.
You’ve done a lot of science fiction in your career. What attracts you about the genre?
Jeff Lemire: You get inspired by different things. I didn’t set out to write three SF books. Sweet Tooth and Trillium are very different. Descender is deep space space opera, I think Descender came out of that. Descender was certainly a reaction to the fun I had doing Trillium. Descender is like taking Trillium and doing that times 10. It was expanding on stuff I like doing.
What was the kernel of Descender?
Lemire: It’s usually just a feeling. It’s just a kernel of something you gravitate to. It’s very unformed and almost abstract. It was just this feeling about a little boy that was on the realm. I wanted to build this huge cosmic mythology about robots and different classes of robots. The idea wasn’t really much more than that. I had the idea of Tim-21 and his pet robot Bandit, and this big drilling robot, these three different personalities, with the backdrop of this big cosmic storyline. You throw ideas at it, some stick, some don’t, half of them are stupid and some are kind of cool. You keep doing that over the course of a few months. You get a lot of ideas, at any given day, I get three or four ideas I might never think of again, and you try to nurture it so it ends up on the page.
How planned out is Descender?
Lemire: It’s very, very planned out. It doesn’t all end up on the page, I need that structure so I can focus in on the character work. I don’t need to figure out plot and mythology and all that stuff. The whole backdrop, the bigger mystery is planned out. It takes a while to get that all plotted, but that was one of the first thing I did, the Harvesters and where it’s all going.
There’s a danger in genre fiction a lot of TV shows fall into. They develop really quickly, they throw out all these mysteries and they’re scrambling, and there has to be a payoff.
One of the standouts of the books is Dr. Quon, and how he’s less nefarious than he’s looked throughout the series.
Lemire: It comes from wanting to write nuanced characters. It’s so easy to fall into tropes, but the world we live in isn’t like that, so why should the future be that way? Nobody’s twisting their mustache trying to be evil. People are making decisions and doing things because they think they’re doing the right thing. I never saw Quon as a villain. He’s made some mistakes and made the wrong decision. He’s not a bad person, just selfish. I don’t know that there’s a villain in the book at all.
The world of Descender is very vivid and unique. How do you go about designing the future?
Lemire: Obviously, a lot of that comes from Dustin. Both of us had a common set of influences that we used as our touchstones, and from there made it our own. I set out more thinking of it from a story point of view, what would be more interesting visually, giving each planet a specific look. In the second arc, you’ll start to see a few more of the planets, where it’s a totally different color palette, a different style. Dustin wanted different environments to keep it fresh. We started from that.
In terms of the technology, that’s all Dustin. He’s really influenced by all the manga and the original Transformer cartoons. He’s developed his own style and aesthetic. It’s really his style combined with the watercolor work he’s doing.
What led you to use watercolor?
Lemire: That was a really early conversation I had with Dustin. We talked about things, and one of the first things he said was that he wanted to watercolor it himself. So, this was his chance to really showcase his artwork, exactly the way he wanted to do it. I think it worked out great. It gives the book a unique flavor.
You’ve both written for comics and drawn your own. How does that affect communicating with artists?
Lemire: It’s pretty easy with Dustin. I love drawing my own stuff, but the truth of the matter is I can only draw one thing at time. Really, I’m always drawing my own thing anyway, so it’s much easier to let go and trust, and Dustin’s the perfect example of that. I love looking at his artwork so much. It’s the most effortless collaboration we’ve ever had. He and I just really click. We have a similar aesthetic. He’s pretty effortless with him. To be honest, it’s much easier to just write a script and let him do all the hard work. (laughs)
Do you have an ending in mind?
Lemire: I usually get the ending as soon as I get the beginning. That’s always sort of happened, and I just need to develop the middle. I hardly ever come up with something where I didn’t know the ending right away. It can be to my detriment. I have an idea for one story, they’re serial with longer run, I’m working on the X-Men now where hopefully there’s an extended. I usually get the beginnings with the endings.
Were you expecting the huge reception it’s gotten?
Lemire: Honestly, no, not really. I kind of know that people respond to stuff that I’m passionate about. That gives you more confidence with each project. The more confidence you get, the bolder you get. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to start Descender 10 years ago. You get more confidence, and writing from a place of confidence is the best thing. It’s hard to get any momentum or really having any success. I think coming up through creator-owned comics and then doing superhero comics was a good thing. It was definitely the other way around.
Descender Vol. 1 is on sale tomorrow.